Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Dear All,

While you're waiting for something new for me on the readings for this Sunday (I have to apologize, but immediate practical concerns have gotten in the way of my posting thus far), I hope these previous entries on gospel stories of Jesus' transfiguration (and I always end up saying more about Luke -- it's my favorite gospel, after all) will prove helpful.

Thanks for your patience, folks.

Blessings,

Dylan

[Update 02-17-07: I apologize -- life got in the way, and I just didn't have it in me to come up with an entirely new creation this week, despite that Luke's version is my favorite of the stories of Jesus' transfiguration. I hope that my prior reflections on it were helpful, and I promise I'll be back with renewed energy next week. Thanks for your patience.]

February 15, 2007 in Administrivia, Luke, Transfiguration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Feast of the Transfiguration

I hope you all will forgive me if, in the midst of the chaos of a major move, I essentially (i.e., there are a couple of revisions) repost the text from my last reflection on Luke's narrative of the Transfiguration:

Luke 9:28 - 36 - link to NRSV text

Have you seen Disney's Beauty and the Beast? That's a film that has a transfiguration; sometimes I imagine the glorious appearance of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in this passage as being a little like the Beast's transfiguration at the end of the film, when he is lifted by mysterious forces and enveloped in light that erupts out from him at the moment of transformation. Hollywood loves that kind of stuff, the special effects moments that signal the climax of the story.

Except that the Transfiguration in Luke is NOT the climax of the story. It's a little more like the moment of Princess Fiona's transformation in Shrek -- there's all of this awe-inspiring light and swelling music that leads us to expect a Beauty and the Beast-style transformation, but it's a setup to subvert our expectations. The light subsides to reveal "true love's true form," and we discover that true love's true form isn't one of conventional beauty and royalty, but is one that makes Fiona perfectly suited for a life of companionship with Shrek in the swamp -- a life that our journey through the world of the story teaches us has the potential for a lot more fun and love than life in a palace does.

This is a message in the story of Jesus' transfiguration in all three gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) in which the story appears. This moment of dazzling glory comes not at the end of the gospel, but in the middle. It is not the climactic moment in which Jesus' true nature is decisively revealed for all to see. After the light show subsides (and in Luke, after the bat qol, the divine voice, proclaims Jesus as God's chosen), Jesus goes back to looking just as he has while they've been traveling around Galilee, teaching, healing, and setting people free from the powers that bound them and shut them out from community. The disciples tell no one of what they have seen.

When the disciples are ready to proclaim their message to the world, at the very center of it will be a moment that comes much later in the story, the moment in which Jesus' true nature is revealed and lifted up for any to see. The revelation of Jesus' true nature will come on the Cross. Luke does something really interesting in his rendering of the Transfiguration story that, I think, makes this extremely clear. In verse 31, Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah appear in glory and speak of Jesus' "departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem." The Greek word used for "departure" here is exodus.

Luke is too careful a writer for this to be a coincidence. In having Moses and Elijah point here, less than half way through the gospel, to what Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem as an "exodus," he is telling us very clearly that the revelation that will free God's people is not the spectacular, not the light show and the heavenly voice. The mountain of the Transfiguration, the moment in which Jesus is alone with his friends and his glory is recognized by all present, is a setting in which Jesus' message cannot be communicated fully. The glory of God and our Exodus from slavery comes in Jesus' path of self-giving, of answering violence and scorn with forgiveness and love, and the ultimate expression of that is Jesus' love and forgiveness from the Cross. That's the revelation the God of Israel, the God who led the people of Israel out from the Pharoah's slavery in Egypt, vindicated as true by raising Jesus from the dead, so declaring him as righteous. Luke's narrative of Jesus' transfiguration points toward the Cross as God's decisive intervention to take a group of slaves and free them to be a people -- one people -- doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God in mindfulness of God's grace in accomplishing our exodus from slavery.

Thanks be to God!

August 5, 2006 in Luke, Transfiguration, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1)

Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Matthew 17:1-9 - link to NRSV text

If you've got one of these -- a book that has parallel passages (different versions of what seem to be pretty much the same story) from the four canonical gospels -- this would be a great week to break it out again. The story of Jesus' transfiguration appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the outline of the story (unlike, say, the story of the woman anointing Jesus found in Mark 14:3-9 and par.) is largely similar. But each version of the Transfiguration has small differences that draw attention to themes that are particular emphases of the author of the gospel in which it appears. In Luke (as I've blogged about before), it's a choice word -- exodus, to be precise -- that swings it, making the story of the Transfiguration a powerful reminder of the parallels between what Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem and what Moses accomplished for God's people in Egypt.

Matthew also has a choice word that plugs his telling of Jesus' transfiguration into something that's a major theme in that gospel: VISION.

It comes in verse 9 -- the place where our lectionary cuts off the reading, and the start of Matthew's explanation of the Transfiguration's significance in his story of Jesus. For Matthew, Jesus' transfiguration is a vision -- a prophetic vision for all of God's people, a vision that will birth countless other visions.

In one sense -- particularly from Peter's angle on the scene -- it's a vision of glory. It's a vision that inspires awe, as in Peter's addition of “if you wish” to his proposed plan to build three dwellings for the dazzling prophets. That dazzling glory is why there's good reason to call the story of the Transfiguration -- especially this telling or the story -- a kind of retrojection, a premature resurrection appearance.The God of Israel raising Jesus from the dead (it was expected by many, after all, that God would raise people from the dead, but it was supposed to be the RIGHTEOUS who were raised -- not to mention the strangeness of the timeframe in which God raised Jesus) was a final and undeniable vindication of Jesus' ministry; as shocking and seemingly impious as his behavior was, he really was functioning as an agent of the God of Israel. Jesus' transfiguration, and the bat qol, heavenly voice affirming that Jesus is indeed a son of the God of Israel, is in a sense a foretaste of the vindication in Jesus' resurrection.

In particular, and particularly in Matthew, the vindication places Jesus in the company of the prophets. That's a literal thing, of course, with the appearance of Moses and Elijah on the scene. This presentation of Jesus as a prophet is underscored by Jesus' transfigured clothing -- not regal purple, like the pretenders to the title of “Lord” who call themselves Caesars, nor like richly multi-colored robes worn by the Temple hierarchy and purchased with revenues from poor Israelites, but pure, simple white (a point made by Neyrey's Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew).

And then there's that one extraordinarily apt word to describe the Transfiguration as portrayed by Matthew: a vision. It's a vision of prophets in at least two senses (subjective and objective genitive, for grammar junkies). It's a vision of Moses and Elijah, and of Jesus in their company, Jesus as a continuation and perhaps a climax of the prophetic trajectory. But it's also a vision of the prophets in the sense that it is a vision claimed by God's people who recognize the Spirit's speech and action in the ministry of Jesus. Peter, the wavering disciple who gets it wrong at least as often as he gets it right, gets in this Sunday's gospel a glimpse of the vision that will make him a prophet too, on the day when the vision of Joel 2 becomes a reality at Pentecost.

But I also am talking about us as readers. As readers -- at least, if we read the whole of Matthew's explanation of this story's importance, rather than leaving off at verse 9 with the lectionary -- we get a glimpse in the Transfiguration of the power that will call God's people -- young and old, men and women -- as God's prophets. The story of the Transfiguration doesn't end with the dazzling glory around which Peter wants to build his tents, but the greater glory of the Son of Man appointed as God's judge of the nations choosing to submit to the Cross rather than strike out at those -- even, or perhaps especially, his tormentors -- he had come to save.

That's why this moment in Jesus' story -- a “special effects moment,” as I call it (can't help it -- I grew up too close to Hollywood) -- comes where it does in the story. I think for Peter, Jesus' transfiguration on the mountain, especially seen in hindsight after Pentecost, might have been anticlimactic in a way a little like the transfiguration at the end of the movie Shrek, the lights and the music underscoring all the more just how mundane -- and how sacred -- true love's true form is once the supernatural glow subsides, and we get down to the difficult and rewarding business of being together as we really are.

Jesus' transfiguration on the mountain gives us a vision of the glory we anticipate for the whole world once Jesus' redeeming work among us in complete -- and God knows we need to be people of vision to see the journey to its completion. But the speed with which that glory subsides on the mountain and our journeying with Jesus in what follows reminds us that the redemption of the world we anticipate is not just a distant hope of a light and a voice now beyond the clouds; it is here with us, to be seen and touched in service to those present with whom Jesus suffers, in love of those who embrace or scorn, in the fellowship of Christ's Body and the work of reconciliation with all whom God loves -- with all that God has made.

Thanks be to God!

January 31, 2005 in Epiphany, Prophets, Transfiguration, Year A | Permalink | Comments (1)

Proper 9, Year C

Luke 10:1-12, 16-20 - link to NRSV text

I'll start with a side note: this passage is yet another good reason not to say “the twelve disciples” when what is meant is “the Twelve,” Peter and James and John and the rest. The gospels are clear that there were more than twelve followers of Jesus. It's also clear from this Sunday's gospel that there were more than twelve apostles.  “Apostles” means “ones sent,” and in this Sunday's gospel, Jesus chooses seventy (or seventy-two, depending on which manuscript you're reading) and sends them out ahead of him as his messengers and agents. And, by the way, there's no reason to assume that these people were all men.

Why seventy 'apostles' here? What's the significance of that? There are a few possibilities. The number seventy is a number of fullness; it often appears in contexts in which it means basically “a big bunch.” Some commentators say that the number seventy here is the number of “the nations” (i.e., the Gentiles), and that Luke is here showing that Gentiles are among those sent out as Jesus' agents. Personally, I lean toward Numbers 11 as the main biblical antecedent for Luke's use of the number seventy here. In Numbers 11, Moses appoints seventy elders to assist him, and they are anointed with the spirit with which Moses is anointed. The tradition of having seventy elders of Israel continues, with the body of seventy elders eventually becoming the Sanhedrin.

Jesus sets apart twelve of his followers as “the Twelve” to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. In other words, Jesus' ministry is reconstituting Israel, God's people. That's pretty much the only distinctive function the Twelve serve. They don't serve in Acts as any kind of governing council; they don't appear as a body after the election of Matthias in Acts 1, and in the “apostolic council” of Acts 15, James the brother of Jesus, who was not one of the Twelve, seems to be the leader of the Jerusalem disciples. They also are not the only or even the primary “apostles” or “ones sent”; even in Luke's usage of the term, which is stricter than Paul's, the Seventy have just as strong a claim to the “apostle” title as the Twelve do.

So one thing that the choosing and sending of the Seventy does for us as we read Luke is that it reminds us of what is NOT special about the Twelve. The Spirit's anointing is not at all confined to the Twelve, or even mediated by them, but is poured out in expanding circles -- first twelve, then seventy, and then (in Acts 2) believers from every nation.

Another thing that the story in this Sunday's gospel does is that in showing Jesus choosing seventy who (like those Moses gathers in Numbers 11) receive some of the spirit that rests on him, it takes up Luke's motif of showing Jesus as a (or even THE) “prophet like Moses,” another one of those eschatological figures expected within some Jewish traditions, and one of particular interest to Luke.

It's a fairly subtle but recurring motif in Luke-Acts, and one that I think is important in Luke's view of Jesus' passion. We got a big clue to that in Luke 9's story of Jesus' transfiguration, which sets the tone for the journey toward Jerusalem. In Luke 9:31, we're told that Moses and Elijah speak of Jesus' “departure, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.”  The Greek word for “departure” here is none other than exodus.

That's what Jesus is accomplishing for us in Jerusalem. It's our exodus, as we allude to in a different way when we say, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”  I've blogged about this before, but it's worth sharing briefly again a bit of midrash I heard from Rabbi Alexander Schindler some years ago.  The Hebrew name for 'Egypt' is Mitzrayim, “the narrow place.”  Jesus, as the “prophet like Moses,” leads us out of our narrow places, our places of slavery, and into the desert, where we receive the Torah and are made a people, God's people. We are freed from Egypt's power so we can serve God's power by being a people who use power as God commands and does, to further justice and mercy.

The wideness of God's mercy can be intimidating or even frightening to those who are accustomed to Mitzrayim, the narrow place. We may look back with longing to narrowness, and to comforting rules about who can and should prophesy. But one more reason I like to read the sending of the Seventy in Luke's gospel as an allusion to Numbers 11 is because I think it works well in Luke's theology to see part of the lesson as being the lesson of Numbers 11:29. When people complain about Eldad and Medad prophesying “out of bounds,” in the view of some, Moses exclaims, “Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”

The sending of the Seventy reminds of us of that longing, of its fulfillment at Pentecost, and of our call to continue longing for its fulfillment among us. It reminds us not to be jealous or shocked by God's profligate generosity of (and with) Spirit. It reminds us that we too are exhorted to pursue love, the greatest of gifts, and to strive especially to prophesy, to speak truth to power in God's love (1 Corinthians 14:1). We need all of God's prophets to hear God's voice in the desert, to become the people God calls us to be.

Thanks be to God!

June 28, 2004 in Acts, Inclusion, Luke, Pentecost, Prophets, Transfiguration, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

First Sunday in Lent, Year C

Luke 4:1-13 - link to NRSV text

This passage, along with its parallel in Matthew, is what prompted Shakespeare to point out that “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose” (The Merchant of Venice, Act I, scene iii), and seeing scripture used as a means of temptation here speaks strongly against some ways we are sometimes tempted to use scripture as we engage in discernment.

One of those ways is what I call the “Magic 8-Ball” method, in which we pick up a Bible, choose some fairly random portion of it as we might shake the Magic 8-Ball, and then try to read whatever comes up as being somehow related to the question about which we're in discernment. Another is what I call the “Beautiful Mind” method, in which we selectively cull words, phrases, and sentences from what we know of scripture -- often from entirely different documents -- to read the combination of things that stand out as a kind of secret message to us.

Neither of these methods of using scripture in discernment is particularly helpful; they tell us more about our own psychology and interpretive prejudices in a given moment than they do about God's will.  I believe 2 Timothy's statement that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 -- although it's also worth noting for us 21st-century readers that when this passage says “scripture,” that doesn't include the New Testament, which didn't exist as a compilation at that point).  But scripture's inspiration and usefulness does not make it a magic book, an infallible oracle that has the answer to any question we might want to ask and will yield wisdom without work to interpret it.  It's not even a matter of saying that anything a passage of scripture says on a topic will be helpful in a given situation if the passage is interpreted “correctly.”  Even true statements that would be very helpful in one context could be destructive to the health of the Body of Christ if applied elsewhere without sustained and prayerful attention to the new context and how well a particular insight gleaned from scripture applies in it.  Just think for a moment what the consequences might have been if, hypothetically, St. Paul's messengers had gotten confused and taken his letter to the Galatians to Corinth, and the Corinthian Christians had received Paul's instruction as something written to and for them -- or, for that matter, if the Galatians had received Paul's letters to the Corinthians and received it as if it had been written to and for them.

That's one reason the Alpha Course, for all the positive experiences people and congregations have had with it, grates on me; Alpha counsels us to read scripture, no matter which scriptural document we're looking at, as a “love letter” written by God to us today.  It's just not that easy.  The devil can quote scripture for his purpose, and I have a hunch that each one of us has seen examples of scriptural interpretation in our communities that were about as helpful to the community as the devil's scripture-quoting is in Luke 4.

In a single blog entry, I can't deal anywhere fully with the subject of how scripture can be used helpfully in discernment; for much of what I'd want to say on the topic, I'll have to substitute a recommendation of Luke Timothy Johnson's excellent and readable book, Scripture and Discernment.

What I can and would like to do here is to offer a few observations about the nature of devilish uses of scripture and how Jesus' vocation draws him in a different direction; I hope these will spark some fruitful further thought about how we might avoid being misled as we seek insights from scripture to help us discern God's call.

On the face of it, there's nothing wrong with what the devil is telling Jesus in the desert:  The power of God to which Jesus has access can provide food for the hungry, and it will.  Jesus does indeed bear the name before which “every knee should bend, and every tongue confess” his lordship (Philippians 2:11) -- and they will.  God's care for each one of God's children is trustworthy.  Every point that the devil makes is, in a sense, “biblical.”  Every point the devil makes is, in a sense, “true.”

Thank God that Jesus is not the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” type!  Thank God that Jesus does not believe that every word of scripture is equally applicable to his circumstances!  Because while all of the devil's points are, in a sense, “true,” they are not helpful here.  Although God will, through Jesus, bring vast crowds (over 5,000, in one famous story) together for an abundant feast, and we believe that the end of history is in a vast and abundant messianic banquet, now is not the time and these are not the circumstances for Jesus to use God's power to provide.  Similarly, now is not the time and these are not the circumstances for the full extent of Jesus' authority and status before God to be revealed.

Jesus is Lord, beloved of God, but the kind of authority Jesus exercises, the character of the God who calls Jesus God's Son, and the means through which the world will be gathered for the messianic feast is revealed most fully through Jesus' self-giving love and forgiveness.  Having resisted the temptation to use God's power and God's gifts to further his own privilege, Jesus is prepared to proclaim with his whole life the kind of self-giving love, radical openness, and unconditional forgiveness that is the character of the God of Israel. 

Pick up a newspaper any day this week, and it will probably be clear that there are still opportunities to make a killing from Jesus' death, to quote scripture to consolidate power, to read the Bible for indications that we deserve the privilege we have and are justified in keeping others down to further it.  But Jesus showed us a different way.  Come in from the desert, and be nourished by the Body of Christ.  Join with sisters and brothers to wrestle together with what we find in scripture, and to help one another listen for the voice of the Spirit, who leads us into the truth of God's call to us here and now.  Be suspicious of any voice that suggests that God's power should be used to further our own privilege, but trust Jesus' self-giving love, which is good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).  Trust the call to extend that love to others.

Thanks be to God!

February 24, 2004 in Discernment, Lent, Luke, Scripture, Transfiguration, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Luke 9:28 - 36 - link to NRSV Text

Have you seen Disney's Beauty and the Beast? That's a film that has a transfiguration; sometimes I imagine the glorious appearance of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in this passage as being a little like the Beast's transfiguration at the end of the film, when he is lifted by mysterious forces and enveloped in light that erupts out from him at the moment of transformation. Hollywood loves that kind of stuff, the special effects moments that signal the climax of the story.

Except that the Transfiguration in Luke is NOT the climax of the story. It's a little more like the moment of Princess Fiona's transformation in Shrek -- there's all of this awe-inspiring light and swelling music that leads us to expect a Beauty and the Beast-style transformation, but it's a setup to subvert our expectations. The light subsides to reveal "true love's true form," and we discover that true love's true form isn't one of conventional beauty and royalty, but is one that makes Fiona perfectly suited for a life of companionship with Shrek in the swamp -- a life that our journey through the world of the story teaches us has the potential for a lot more fun and love than life in a palace does.

This is a message in the story of Jesus' transfiguration in all three gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) in which the story appears. This moment of dazzling glory comes not at the end of the gospel, but in the middle. It is not the climactic moment in which Jesus' true nature is decisively revealed for all to see. After the light show subsides (and in Luke, after the bat qol, the divine voice, proclaims Jesus as God's chosen), Jesus goes back to looking just as he has while they've been traveling around Galilee, teaching, healing, and setting people free from the powers that bound them and shut them out from community. The disciples tell no one of what they have seen.

When the disciples are ready to proclaim their message to the world, at the very center of it will be a moment that comes much later in the story, the moment in which Jesus' true nature is revealed and lifted up for any to see. The revelation of Jesus' true nature will come on the Cross. Luke does something really interesting in his rendering of the Transfiguration story that, I think, makes this extremely clear. In verse 31, Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah appear in glory and speak of Jesus' "departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem." The Greek word used for "departure" here is exodus.

Luke is too careful a writer for this to be a coincidence. In having Moses and Elijah point here, less than half way through the gospel, to what Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem as an "exodus," he is telling us very clearly that the revelation that will free God's people is not the spectacular, not the light show and the heavenly voice.  The mountain of the Transfiguration, the moment in which Jesus is alone with his friends and his glory is recognized by all present, is a setting in which Jesus' message cannot be communicated fully. The glory of God and our Exodus from slavery comes in Jesus' path of self-giving, of answering violence and scorn with forgiveness and love, and the ultimate expression of that is Jesus' love and forgiveness from the Cross. That's the revelation the God of Israel, the God who led the people of Israel out from the Pharoah's slavery in Egypt, vindicated as true by raising Jesus from the dead, so declaring him as righteous.

Thanks be to God!

February 16, 2004 in Luke, Transfiguration, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)